Google tries to patent Web syndication ads

If granted, patent could throw a wrench in the emerging market around syndicated headlines delivered via the popular RSS format.

Google is claiming that it has invented a unique way to distribute online advertising via syndicated news feeds--and it wants a patent for the technology.

If granted, the patent would presumably give Google the exclusive rights for "incorporating targeted ads into information in a syndicated, e.g., RSS, presentation format in an automated manner," according to its patent application titled, "Embedding advertisements in syndicated content."

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, a standard format for syndicating content from online news sites, blogs, job boards and other dynamic Web sites. A growing number of people are using RSS-based syndication programs to stay on top of their favorite sites, subscribing to lists of headlines and other fresh content. The trend is attracting venture capital, too.

Google, Yahoo and a number of start-ups are eyeing syndication as a new outlet for delivering online ads. If Google is granted the patent, it could be a big blow to its rivals in the field, said Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li.

"It would really stifle competition," Li said. "It would be a pretty powerful patent to have."

Google employee Nelson Minar filed the application, which is still under review by the U.S. Trade and Patent Office, on Dec. 31, 2003. But word of it surfaced only this week via several blogs, including Search Engine Watch and TechDirt.

Others developing systems for distributing targeted text ads via RSS syndication include Feedster, Kanoodle, Moreover Technologies and Yahoo. Yahoo is still testing its system, while Kanoodle and Moreover launched a service together in February. Microsoft and America Online also are dabbling in syndication technology, but have been unclear about their ad strategies around it.

Google introduced its syndication ad service only recently. It began testing the system in April and started selling ads in May.

The company's patent request specifically covers the delivery of ads using "an automated ad server." The service "is used to provide keyword- or content-based targeted ads," the application states. "The ads are incorporated directly into a syndicated feed, e.g., with individual ads becoming items within a particular channel of the feed."

The application also covers automated billing, and an "automated targeting and insertion process allows ads to be kept current and timely while the original feed may be considerably older."

Because syndication is a relatively new and populated field, Google may find it difficult to prove that no one else came up with the ad technology first, a burden known as "prior art."

"There is a lot of prior art they would have to get around," Forrester's Li said.

Representatives from Google and Yahoo declined to discuss the patent application. Minar did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment, nor did representatives from Feedster, Kanoodle and Moreover.

Syndication via RSS format is still a fairly new concept for most people. Just 5 percent of Internet users in the United States used syndication technologies last year to read news headlines and other content, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

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